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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

COVID-19 has struck Gambell, Alaska, a remote island village that is closer to Russia than the U.S.

This past week, two more coronavirus cases broke out in the small village on St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Sea, bringing the total case count to 19 in a town of only 681 residents.

The community’s close-knit nature has fostered the spread of disease, officials say, while its isolation has made it hard to provide care.

Around 96 percent of Gambell’s residents are Siberian Yupik, and nearly all of them speak Yupik as their first language. The Chukotkan Mountains of the Russian Far East 32 miles away are visible from the village.

It typically costs at least $500 to make the 50-minute, 200-mile journey to the nearest hospital in Nome, which has about 10 respirators to serve more than 15 regional villages, the Anchorage Daily News reported. It’s another $500 and at least three hours of flight time to reach Fairbanks, where more intensive-care beds and respirators are available.

The newly infected patients are now safely isolated, according to the Norton Sound Health Corporation, a tribal health nonprofit that serves Indigenous people in Alaska’s Bering Strait region. Norton Sound Health Corporation has been working with state health officials and Sivuqaq tribal leaders to further contain the outbreak.

Testing kits are available at Gambell’s local clinic and at Nome’s walk-in testing COVID-19 tent, as part of Norton Sound Health Corporation’s strategy for combating the virus. They have tested around 400 Gambell residents since a six-person household tested positive for the virus earlier this month, reports say.

Gambell and the surrounding region are far from Alaska’s COVID-19 hotspots in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Anchorage has had more than 4,400 cases, and the Fairbanks area more than 1,100.

Despite the remoteness, the entire Bering Strait region has recorded 80 total coronavirus cases since the outbreak of the pandemic. Of those, 58 have recovered, while the rest remain active.

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The city of Gambell has enforced a village-wide curfew to limit contact between residents. Masks are required in all public places, and grocery store visits are limited to one member of each household. The village has one grocery store, which has food flown in from Anchorage and Seattle. Residents also rely on whaling and other subsistence hunting and fishing for food.

“Elders and other residents with weakened immune systems should not go into public at all,” the Norton Sound Health Corporation said in a release.

In villages with small populations, quarantining can impact a town’s daily operations, even if most people don’t have the virus themselves. Both managers at Gambell’s general store had come in contact with someone who had COVID-19 in the past few days, and were quarantining until they got their test results back.

Joana Apassingok, Siberian Yupik, said the store’s staff is down to several workers as she and other employees fill orders that villagers phone in.

“Ever since they've been in quarantine, we’ve been going crazy here at the store. There's only six of us working right now, and so we're all taking orders like two at a time or three at a time,” said Apassingok, who has been substituting at the village store for the quarantined managers.

Gambell has also put restrictions on travel in and out of the area throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents must have proof of a negative test 72 hours before they leave or enter Gambell. Nonresidents must request access and receive approval before they can enter the area.

Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.

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